During my trip to Thailand, I was fortunate to be able to visit Namfon Cutter's fishing cat research and conservation project in Khao Sam Roi Yod National Park. Dr. Dao, veterinarian at Khao Kheow Open Zoo, and I drove to the park in south central Thailand (at the northern end of the Malayan Peninsula) to learn about Namfon's work. I have previously met Namfon and our AAZK chapter has provided some small grants to support her efforts, so I was very excited to be able to see the site first hand.
Namfon is currently studying cats living near the park headquarters, in an area that is used extensively for fish farming. She has been working here for two years, and has had great success in learning about the population of fishing cats living here. She has managed to capture and radiocollar 17 cats during that time. In this photo, her research assistants are tracking a 3-year-old female.
Periodically, the ponds are drained for harvesting the crop and this leaves some free food for the cats. The farmers alert Namfon when they will be draining the ponds so she can set up cameras to monitor the cats. This process has proven very successful at getting lots of images.
Other very visible signs were frequent scats, usually colored white from the remains of the fish they ate. Namfon even pointed out that fishing cats will use common latrines.
Despite the ability of fishing cats to survive in and around Khao Sam Roi Yod, they do face some serious conservation issues. Namfon has worked very hard to build support for fishing cats in the area as well as to be able to gain access to private land for her research. This takes developing relationships and trust with the farmers over long periods of time. Despite her success, poaching and retribution for livestock depredation is a problem. Recently, Namfon has lost ten of her collared cats and some of these losses are confirmed incidences of poaching. Fishing cats are often accused of killing chickens. When these reports arise, Namfon will respond and set up cameras to find out if cats are really the culprits. (Often, it's feral dogs.) If fishing cats are confirmed to be causing the problem, Namfon will help the farmers construct wire pens for securing the chickens at night. This is a very low cost solution (approximately $100) that has been very successful in gaining support from farmers.
Overall, it was very encouraging to visit this project and leave with such a positive feeling. According to Namfon, "The human/cat conflicts here are manageable and there is a good chance for future for the fishing cat." With so much depressing news in felid conservation this was a really uplifting statement!
So, what can we do to help fishing cats survive? Of course, supporting projects like this is a really concrete way to make a difference. Buying a few rolls of wire for a chicken pen can literally save a cat's life. Making a donation to help Namfon's outreach program to farmers and communities can help an entire region to value wildlife. But also think about the consumer choices we make and their impact on conservation. Seeing how this habitat has been completely transformed as a result of the human appetite for seafood reinforced how important it is to think about making those purchases be as sustainable as possible.
For lots more information on this project, please visit Namfon's website. She has all sorts of camera trap photos of her study subjects and more information on her community efforts. She is my hero!
Finally, I'll wrap up this marathon post with some photos of one of the perks of being a dedicated fishing cat researcher. The park supports Namfon's work by providing her with housing - a little bungalow right on the ocean! It is a very sweet spot and we were lucky to be able to spend the night with her. Thanks for everything Namfon!